Greetings from Fort Myers

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Hrbek Road.jpgPro tip: when the GPS in your car tells you to take a boring interstate and the map in your hand shows you a nice, winding rural route, follow the map every time. Interstates are death.

The trip across the state to Fort Myers was a lot of fun. No traffic, nice weather, a big lake and lots of ranches where cattle grazed amongst palm trees. I stopped and had lunch at some little roadside joint with a sign that said “best food in Okeechobee County.” I didn’t ask if it was the only food in Okeechobee County. That would have been rude.  Good burger, though.

I made it to Fort Myers mid-afternoon, checked into my hotel and decided to run by Hammond Stadium — spring training home of the Twins — to pick up my media credentials for today’s game. The place was mostly empty — the Twins were up in Sarasota playing the Orioles — but the gate was open so I drove on in to what may be the most beautiful ballpark parking lot I’ve ever seen.  There’s a grassy mall lined with palm trees leading to the main gate, with nicely landscaped parking rows on either side. Each row has a street sign, naming it after a Twins great.  As you can see from the pic, I parked on Hrbek Road.  Strangest thing happened though: when I thought I was safely parked, a big dude came over and wrestled me off my space. Cop standing nearby didn’t do anything about it. Huh.

I walked into the empty ballpark and wandered around a bit.  Port St. Lucie and Tradition Field remind me of an office park. Hammond Stadium screams spring training. It’s really a beautiful place. There’s the landscaping, sure, but the facade has this Churchill Downs thing going which walks that line between cheesy and quaint that characterizes all good minor league ballparks.  Inside some men were attending to the infield while the outfield grass was being watered. I sat down on a seat near the third base dugout for a bit, smelling the grass, enjoying the sun and thanking the fates that I get paid to do this.

After a few minutes of bliss I found an elevator which led to the Twins’ offices. It was mostly empty, but a fellow named Dustin Morse was still working. My credential had already been sent down to will call, it seems, and will call was closed for the day, but Dustin was nice enough to fill out a new one for me so I could get to the ballpark early this morning before the ticket booth opened up. After that he gave me the lay of the land at Hammond and patiently answered my questions despite the fact that he probably had 100 more important things to be doing. Great guy, Dustin. And friendly with the sabermetric media too!

I left Hammond, and decided to take a drive down to the beaches, which were emptying out for the day. I met three baseball fans walking along the beach. The first two were a young couple wearing Cardinals’ t-shirts. I chatted with them a bit. They’re from central Illinois and are down here to follow the Cards around (they had been to the Red Sox-Cards game here in Fort Myers that afternoon).  Seems they come to spring training every year. It’s the wife’s obsession more than the husbands, they said. I’m a happily married man and I’m not violent by nature, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have thoughts of bumping the dude off and taking his woman to be my bride.

I met the second one in the parking lot near the beach when I decided to play good samaritan and gave him my little pre-paid parking ticket that still had some time left on it so he wouldn’t have to buy one of his own.  I had on a Giants’ t-shirt and he said “your giving me this may make me have to rethink Giants’ fans.”  I told him I wasn’t a Giants fan. I just liked the shirt.  He said he was relieved to hear that, because he really doesn’t want to have to start liking Giants fans, what with him being a Dodgers guy.  And no, he’s not happy that the Dodgers train in Arizona now.

Back to the ballpark first thing this morning. Twins vs. Cardinals at 1:05 PM.  I’ll be checking in throughout the day. Also if you’re on Twitter, follow me at @craigcalcaterra. I have a tendency to bring the snark during games if that’s your bag.

The Padres non-tendered RHP Tyson Ross

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 04:  Tyson Ross #38 of the San Diego Padres walks off the field as he's taken out of the game in the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on opening day at PETCO Park on April 4, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
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Per a report by MLB.com’s AJ Cassavell, the Padres non-tendered right-handed starter Tyson Ross on Friday, cutting loose their top ace after three seasons with the club.

Ross, 29, was sidelined for the bulk of the season with inflammation in his right shoulder and underwent thoracic outlet surgery in October. His injuries limited him to only 5 1/3 innings in 2016, during which he gave up seven runs and struck out five in a 15-0 blowout against the Dodgers.

Prior to his lengthy stint on the disabled list, the right-hander earned 9.5 fWAR and pitched to a 3.07 ERA and 9.2 K/9 rate in three full seasons with the Padres. He avoided arbitration with a one-year, $9.625 million deal prior to the 2016 season after leading the league with 33 starts and delivering a 3.26 ERA and career-best 4.4 WARP over 196 innings in 2015.

The Padres appear open to bringing Ross back to San Diego, reported Cassavell, albeit not at such a steep cost. Cassavell quoted Padres’ GM A.J. Preller, who was reportedly in trade talks involving Ross but unable to strike a deal, likely due to the right-hander’s recent health issues. Preller denied that those same health issues factored into the club’s decision to non-tender their ace.

With the move, Ross became one of 35 major leaguers to enter free agency on Friday.

Angels’ Pujols has foot surgery, could be sidelined 4 months

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Los Angeles Angels slugger Albert Pujols had surgery on his right foot Friday, possibly sidelining him past opening day.

Angels general manager Billy Eppler said Pujols had the procedure Friday in North Carolina to release his plantar fascia, the ligament connecting the heel to the toes. The three-time NL MVP was bothered by plantar fasciitis repeatedly during the season, but played through the pain in arguably the strongest year of his half-decade with the Angels.

Eppler said the surgery typically prevents players from participating in baseball activities for three months, along with another month before they’re ready to resume playing in games. Opening day for Los Angeles is April 3, and the Angels hope Pujols can be ready.

“He’s at that point in his career where he’s keenly aware of what’s happening with his body,” Eppler said in a phone interview. “I don’t put the timetable on Albert like you would with your younger players. We’ll just see in Albert’s case, as he progresses, what his timetable is.”

Pujols, who turns 37 next month, batted .268 last year with 31 homers and 119 RBIs, the fourth-most in the majors – although his .780 OPS was among the worst of his career. He largely served as a designated hitter instead of playing first base due to problems with his hamstrings and feet.

Pujols heads into 2017 with 591 career homers, ranking him ninth in major league history. He is 18 homers behind Sammy Sosa for eighth place.

After playing in pain until the final week of the Angels’ disappointing season, Pujols began shock wave therapy on his foot early in the offseason, believing he wouldn’t need surgery.

But Pujols’ foot became more painful in recent weeks despite the therapy, and he huddled with the Angels’ top brass to decide on surgery after his most recent trip to see Dr. Robert Anderson in North Carolina. Continuing with conservative care would have required 10 more weeks, forcing Pujols to miss the first half of the 2017 season if he still required surgery.

“He just felt that the pain had gotten to a point where he was comfortable” having surgery, Eppler said. “If we did delay it, you’re just looking at 2 1/2 more months into the season.”

Pujols had a different type of surgery on his right foot last winter, but recovered in time for opening day. He also had plantar fasciitis in his left foot during the 2013 season, eventually forcing him out for the year when his fascia snapped.

Pujols has five years and $140 million remaining on the 10-year, $240 million free-agent contract that pried him out of St. Louis, where he won two World Series and became a nine-time NL All-Star.

The Angels haven’t won a playoff game since Pujols’ arrival and Mike Trout‘s concurrent emergence as one of baseball’s best players. They went 74-88 last season, the injury-plagued club’s worst record since 1999.